“We should roast some mussels over the fire.”
A middle aged couple sat on a log on the Northern California beach with their two adult children, drinking beer and smoking weed. They had built a fierce fire out of driftwood, evaporating the March chill, so hot I wondered if it could turn the sand underneath into glass.
“But you’re a vegetarian,” Eric said.
“How do you cook mussels over a fire?” I asked the family of locals.
“You just put them on the rocks. It’s hot enough. When they pop open from the steam, they’re ready,” the father said. “I just heard they tested them and the mussels are safe to eat now. Usually they would have been good a while ago, but there were still toxins.”
I was glad I had asked. Mussels suck in and consume Dinoflagellate plankton, which contain chemicals poisonous to humans. The concentration of toxin in bivalves, such as mussels, usually fluctuates in a seasonal pattern. If I hadn’t queried someone knowledgeable of the redwoods coastline, I could have poisoned my boyfriend and myself.
I had inspected the rocks exposed by the evening low tide. There were mussels, many of them, although they were small. Each one held tightly to the rocks with tough protein fibers called byssus threads or the “beard” of the mussel. I used my blue Squirt multitool, small enough to fit on my keychain, to cut (with the knife) and pry (with the pliers) mussels away. I was no expert. The shells of the mussels and surrounding barnacles cut into my soft hands. I decided five mussels were enough to try. I didn’t even know if I liked mussels.
The rocks around the fire were indeed hot. Eric and I couldn’t get our hands close enough to lay the mussels out evenly, flinging them towards the fire from a foot away. Within seconds, the mussel nearest to the fire split open, spewing boiling juices. Eric fished it out with a long, narrow twig, catching a knob at the end of the twig in the hinge of the mussel.
“Would you guys like some?” I said to the family.
“No thanks. We just had pizza,” the mother said, with a sheepish smile.
Eric arranged the cooked mussels on a flat, cool rock. Orangey tan flesh was visible within the parting of the shells. It looked good.
I had been a vegetarian for fourteen years, only breaking my discipline to eat seafood during a year in Japan, something I felt obligated to do in order to be a polite foreigner. I may have eaten mussels in sushi or something during that time five years ago, but I have no recollection, and I stopped eating seafood the moment I landed in an American airport. I do not think eating animals is inherently evil, merely unnecessary and often cruel. People are unacceptably disconnected from their food. They can eat a cow, but they would never have the guts to slaughter one. Most people would cry, or become nauseous, and refuse. It becomes barbaric when someone has to personally kill something that they can nonchalantly eat in fast food. While hitchhiking in New Zealand, I encountered a number of family farmers who raised, butchered, and prepared most of the meat in their diet. I found that respectable.
I have modified my own morals such that I can eat meat, but only if I hunt, kill, and cook it myself. Anything I do not have the fortitude to kill, I do not have any right to eat. I don’t have much mercy for bivalves, though. No face, no visibly squirming body. I tore the mussels off the rocks without much guilt.
I selected a smaller mussel from the cooling rock and brought it up to my nose: salty, smelling of the ocean, but in a fresh way. I opened the mussel entirely, appreciating the inner sheen of the shell, and dropped the side without the meat. The small morsel held firmly to the remaining shell. My omnivore’s teeth scraped it out.
I wasn’t amazed. It was satisfyingly chewy and a little disgustingly gooey. The mussel tasted the way it smelled. Mostly satisfactory, I supposed, but I wasn’t an expert.
“What do you think?” I queried Eric.
“Delicious. Straight from the sea.”